Did plastics create our throwaway society?

litter in forest“Plastic waste is abhorrent,” writes Rose Brooke, editor of EPPM, in a blog post. She laments the disappointment she feels when her “view of the countryside” is disrupted by the “sight of a crisp packet in a hedgerow.” It is, said Brooke, “the constant and indelible reminder of ourselves as a lazy, consumption-driven society that too many of us haven’t the patience or the sensitivity to hang on to our packaging to dispose of responsibly.”

I know the feeling. As much as I love the plastics industry and appreciate what plastics have done for society as a whole over the past 50 years, my heart drops when I find plastic litter thrown carelessly in our parks. Another black eye on the industry, I think, as I pick it up and carry it to a trash bin or, better yet, a recycling container. If I can carry this piece of plastic until I find a proper place to dispose of it, couldn’t the person who carelessly threw it on the ground in the first place have done the same thing?

I agree with Brooke in some respects, but disagree with her when she writes, “Society has a consumption problem.” No, society has a littering problem. Consumption in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Consumption drives the economic engine that keeps our economies thriving, people working at jobs—jobs in the plastics industry.

Brooke also said that “landfill, too, is an embarrassing reminder of our throwaway society,” noting that we “landfill valuable electrical products” that can possibly be repaired or reused. She mentioned the Dec. 6 UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, at which the UN condemned marine plastics as a “planetary crisis.” She then points to the fact that plastic doesn’t have an image problem, but, rather, “is not fully understood as a contributing technology to the lives we lead.”

Brooke was invited to respond to a piece by BBC Environment Analyst Roger Harrabin after the UN resolution was announced, to be delivered live on BBC radio. She was asked to “respond to the claim that the world is searching for the Holy Grail of biodegradable plastic technology as a panacea to the world’s pollution problems.”

Her response to that search is very similar to my own. “The notion that plastics that biodegrade in the environment is the solution to marine litter is as unworkable as it is irresponsible,” Brooke writes in her blog. “Before you even look at the mechanics of how this would work, the message that it sends is simply that plastics are disposable, which does not address the fact that the plastics end up in the environment in the first place.

“Setting the ultimate goal of converting everything to biodegradable plastics (would that were even possible) flies in the face of the hard work the European Commission and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are doing to establish the Plastics Circular Economy.”

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